NBA Playoffs: Can Bulls find answers to Heat’s questions?

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LeBron James didn’t really get going as a scorer (holding him to 22 points is keeping them in check). Same with Dwyane Wade who had just 17 points. The Bulls grabbed 32.5 percent of their missed shots for offensive rebounds. The Bulls limited the Heat’s transition points. Carlos Boozer put up 26 points with 17 boards.

A lot of things went right for the Bulls — and they still lost 96-85. They now trail 2-1 to the Heat.

If all those things to right and they lose, what does it take for them to win? Game 3 felt like the Heat starting to take control of the series.

The battle of the power forwards — Chris Bosh outscoring and outplaying Boozer — will be the big storyline. And that mattered. Bosh dropped 34 and was key in the second and fourth quarters.

But that was part of a larger issue for the Bulls — the Heat’s schemes and matchups are asking questions of the Bulls they seem to have no answers for. Like where is the second scorer for the Bulls? And if all three of Miami’s top three get going, does it matter? Sure, the Bulls are only one game down in this series. But can they find enough answers to those questions to win three of the next four games? Because that is what it will take to advance.

The most important of those questions is who will score if Derrick Rose can’t? Rose is facing hard double teams, walls of players when he attacks the rim, and the result has been forcing someone else to score. During the regular season he was relentless and just found a way to get it done, that’s why he is MVP. But in the playoffs he needs help.

“It always comes down to your three primary scorers,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said in a postgame press conference on NBA TV. “You have to try to make it hard on those three. That’s the case with every team.”

The Heat didn’t make it hard on Boozer, who was the secondary scorer for the Bulls with his 26 points on 19 shots in Game 3.

But that came with a cost — Boozer is not a good defender and his primary assignment with Bosh. And Bosh went off. He had room to operate early and got his confidence, then by the end was spinning into the middle off a poorly-positioned Boozer for crowd-pleasing dunks. Taj Gibson off the bench is a better defender than Boozer and Gibson brings some offense, but this is one of the challenges Thibodeau and the Bulls face — do you sit a hot scorer for more defense? The Bulls face the same issue at the two with Ronnie Brewer or Kyle Korver. Off the bench

Erik Spoelstra doesn’t face that offense-for-defense issue — Bosh, LeBron, Wade all are good at both ends. It makes the Heat that much more difficult.

The other issue the Bulls face is who is their third scorer? Luol Deng? He can shoot and dropped 14 in this one, but is he steady enough and really a big enough threat?

This game had an interesting twist in the Bulls offense, — when the double came to Rose he slid the ball to Joakim Noah near the free throw line. Then when the defense came at Noah he made some nifty passes to Boozer and others, leading to Noah having six assists on the night. But by the fourth quarter the Heat had adjusted and they didn’t send anyone to Noah — they dared him to beat them with a jumper or on the drive. Neither worked, and the Bulls offense struggled. It is easier to make the Bulls struggle.

Meanwhile, the Heat found their offensive groove. Their third scorer is a former All-Star in Bosh who can do a lot of damage (as he has in tow of the three games this series). The Bulls couldn’t stop the Heat once they got going — in the last three quarters the Heat shot 60 percent (second), 50 percent (third) and 56 percent (fourth). The Heat are getting their points against the best defense in the league.

The Heat also are getting enough rebounds, with Wade leading the team with nine. They are causing problems with their pressure defense. They are taking control of the game.

The series is far from over. But those are a lot of areas for the Bulls to fix, and not with easy answers. Bosh may well not shoot as well next game, but James and Wade likely will shoot better.

Maybe the Bulls have answers. Maybe this series will head back to the United Center for Game 5 tied 2-2. But it’s not easy to see how right now, because they have no easy answers to some very difficult questions.

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelicans Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.